An Interview With Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin

“A world record was never our primary goal.”

Bulgari set a new world record at Baselworld 2018 with the thinnest automatic watch in the world, and also introduced another sensational watch with its Minute Repeater in a carbon case. CEO Jean-Christophe Babin explains how this came about in an interview with Rüdiger Bucher, editor-in-chief of WatchTime’s German sister magazine Chronos and International Editorial Director of Ebner Publishing.

Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari - seated
Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari

With your introduction of the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic as the world’s thinnest automatic watch, you regained the world record that Piaget had taken away from you just two months before. How did all this come about?
Breaking world records was never our primary goal. But the automatic watch was an exception. Piaget had just taken away the world record we had won in 2017, and we wanted to get it back as quickly as possible. But generally speaking, breaking world records is not a direction we give to our developers. Our most important goal for our thin watches is to achieve the next level of elegance. And if this results in a new record, that’s even better! We continue to build on the unique look that we first introduced in 2016 with the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater in titanium, which combines the octagonal shape, a super-thin case, and special materials. Developing a super-thin automatic tourbillon with a peripheral oscillating weight was already in the works, even though we hadn’t been planning to introduce it in 2018. But when we heard in November 2017 that another brand would be breaking the world record we set for the thinnest automatic watch with our Octo Finissimo Automatic, we pulled our teams together to see what we needed to set another world record. Accelerating this project, which was originally scheduled for 2019, was an enormous challenge: we had to develop about 150 new components of the total of 288 for the movement.

Are you satisfied with the result?
Yes, very much so. With the Octo Finissimo we now have a collection in which every model comes together to form a coherent group. Basically, when you expand an existing collection, you must take great care to ensure that the idea behind the original design is not diminished. In this respect I’m happy that the Octo Finissimo fits in so nicely, even with a diameter of 42 millimeters. In 2014 we introduced the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, the thinnest watch with a tourbillon, which had an overall case thickness of 3.95 millimeters. In order to retain this degree of thinness we needed to provide it with a peripheral oscillating weight, which allows the thickness of the watch to remain the same. But this resulted in a larger diameter.

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic - side
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic

Were there any other challenges?
We also had to develop a new crown. First of all, another system was necessary because of the peripheral oscillating weight. So you press a push-button instead of pulling the crown to switch between the winding and hand setting functions. We also needed a complete redesign because the old crown was too large. Compared with the Octo Finissimo Automatic, the case is now 1.2 millimeters thinner, so the crown size had to be adjusted accordingly.

Besides the world-record watch, you are introducing other Octo Finissimo models: the Minute Repeater is now available in a carbon case, and there are new colors as well.
Yes, and the important part is how the colors emanate from the material. In addition to titanium we now offer steel, gold, and carbon. If you look at these watches [indicating the various models displayed on the table before us] you’ll see a variety of colors. The colors are not applied to the surface; they come from the structure of the material. This is important to us. This is how we are expanding the design we introduced with the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater in titanium – also in terms of price, as it is now offered at around 13,000 euros. The repeater costs ten times more.

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic - Sandblasted
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic in new case colors

After first introducing the Minute Repeater in a titanium case, now you are working with carbon. Is this because it transmits the sound outward better than metal?
The atomic structure of that material is very dense and thus produces a very pleasant, crystalline tone. With a gold case, like the one on the Divissima ladies’ watch, the hammer striking the gongs is softer, rounder, less crystalline. Another reason for using carbon was the new color it offers. We could have gotten another color with a DLC coating, but carbon is a much better choice for such a complicated and valuable watch. The structure of the material varies slightly with each model and that makes each one unique. The desire for individuality is another feature of high jewelry. In contrast, gold and titanium are more static materials. And lastly, weight plays a role as well. While the repeater in titanium was very light, weighing only 77 grams, the carbon watch is lighter still, only 47 grams. I find that the Minute Repeater in carbon is the greatest contemporary large complication because it doesn’t look anything like a classic Grande Complication. It is more reminiscent of the digital world than traditional haute horlogerie.

There’s also a new Octo Finissimo in a very light-colored steel.
A special surface treatment makes the steel lighter and brighter in color, and that becomes even more apparent in the brushed version. We use this technique for our white-gold jewelry and discovered its application with 316 steel – a beautiful synergy between jewelry and watches. I also love this color because it looks a little like aluminum, which has played such an important role in the history of Bulgari.

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater Carbon
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater in carbon case

What other colors can you foresee? Blue anodized aluminum, perhaps?
Yes, that would be conceivable. Brown tones would also be a possibility.

You are giving a lot of attention to the Octo among your men’s watch collections. Do you find that you also need a strong, round watch?
At the present time I see us in our role, shall we say, as a mainstream provider of jewelry and as a specialized niche provider of watches. This can have a polarizing effect. We are doing this with our Serpenti ladies’ watches, and at the same time we are promoting a round watch with the Lucea. Basically I think we’re too small to be concentrating on more than these three designs: Octo, Serpenti, Lucea.

What is in store for Bulgari-Bulgari and Diagono?
These two will come together in a relaunched Bulgari-Bulgari line. This “branded collection” will find a special place in our boutiques, and we will continue to concentrate our retail efforts on the three collections we discussed.

Jean-Christophe Babin CEO Bulgari - seated
Babin sees Bulgari as “a mainstream provider in jewelry and a specialized niche provider of watches.”
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